On the heels of the former Chief Justice's retirement, our branch leaders, including the current Chief Justice, asked for time to change the operations of the Judicial Council and the AOC. We were hopeful that the new regime would embrace and implement measures to ensure greater accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, it has become clear that the new regime is like the old regime in far too many respects.
We have documented many of these continued failures of leadership, too many to list here. Today we write about a troubling practice of our branch leaders that appears to be getting worse over time: the use of a Rule of Court to obfuscate and refuse to make available public records which reveal how public funds are being spent. We cannot discover and call attention to wasteful spending if our court leaders continue to hide the records that may reveal it. A recent example is illustrative.
In April Alliance director Judge Kevin McCormick requested a list of the current active contracts from the AOC. The AOC compiled this list previously and made it available to those who sought it, including judges and public employee associations. Instead, the AOC emailed to Judge McCormick approximately 400 pages of raw data, asserting that they do not maintain such a list in the regular course of business. On June 10, AOC staff member Chad Finke wrote to Judge McCormick in part:
"... as reported by Justice Douglas Miller at the Judicial Council's October 2011 business meeting, the council directed AOC staff going forward from that date to comply strictly with the requirement of rule 10.500 and not to exceed those requirements in responding to requests made under this rule."
Mr. Finke went on to state:
"Here, because we do not compile or assemble the requested data in the requested form for the AOC's own use or for provision to other agencies, Judge Jahr has once again confirmed that the council's October 2011 directive prevents us from running a custom update for you." (Emphasis added.)
Judge McCormick then undertook an analysis of the voluminous "document dump" provided by the AOC, which raised a number of red flags concerning expenditures related to hotel stays. On May 31, Judge McCormick wrote to the Administrative Director of the Courts and staff member Finke:
"Rather than simply providing the "Active Contracts" as previously done you have sent me approximately 400 pages of raw data. I am again requesting you provide the "Active Contracts" information which you can easily generate in the form previously provided."
Judge McCormick went on to add:
"In addition, the voluminous documents you did provide contained numerous charges I have interest in, but for now I am requesting additional information about hotel expenses. Hotel charges for the year 2010 as reflected in the documents provided total approximately $319,989. Hotel charges in 2011 totaled $274,233 and hotel expenses for 2012 were $911,950."
Judge McCormick then requested documentation for these charges, as well as what they were incurred for such as seminars or educational conferences, the names of staff and participants that may have attended them, and if not for a conference or seminar, any reimbursements that may have been paid for those stays.
Judge McCormick observed: "It is of note that the documentation reflects over a 300% increase by the AOC and Judicial Council on what many would describe as discretionary spending at the same time court closures, layoffs and reduced hours at many of our courts were taking place."
So, how did the new and improved AOC respond to this request from a judge? Rather than provide a responsive answer, AOC staff member Chad Finke responded on June 10:
"...we need to know which of the voluminous judicial administrative records we have provided to you over the past year support those figures and where those figures appear and/or how they were calculated. Once you provide that information, we will be able to evaluate that portion of your request and respond as required under rule 10.500."
In other words: "Judge McCormick, show us the math you used on the non-responsive documents we provided and then we will see if you are entitled to anything further...but don't hold your breath."
Is this the new face of a reformed AOC? Are we to sit by quietly and simply accept that the public's money is being spent prudently when we know from past experiences, as well as the Chief Justice's own Strategic Evaluation Committee, that this is a bureaucracy run amok? Is there any doubt why the AOC would resist an audit of its functions as it did recently, citing the cost as a reason not to be audited even while a number of local courts were being audited at their own expense?
The Alliance will not accept business as usual at the AOC, nor will we be deterred by persistent refusals to accept oversight. We will keep you informed as we persist in seeking the information needed to stop wasteful bureaucratic spending at the expense of the trial courts and the credibility of the judicial branch.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges